This week’s article will examine the natural tendency to search for meaning in the mitzvos. Is seeking to understand them even proper, or should mitzvos remain unexplained statutes? Are there circumstances that call for comprehension while others – don’t? The Torah calls the mitzva of Para Aduma (the Red Heifer) a chok — an incomprehensible mitzva. Nevertheless, commentaries do mention several meanings for it. How do we reconcile the two? Searching for the mitzvos’ deeper meaning contains an inherent danger. What is it, and what should be done to ensure that we don’t fall into the trap?
Reason for the Mitzva of Para Aduma
This week’s parasha begins with one of the most mysterious mitzvos in the Torah – the mitzva of Para Aduma, the Red Heifer: “This is the statute of the Torah which the Lord commanded, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Yisroel and have them take for you a perfectly unblemished red cow, upon which no yoke was laid’.” Rashi explains that this mitzva is called a statute, “because the Satan and the nations of the world taunt Yisroel, saying, ‘What is this commandment, and what purpose does it have?’ Therefore, the Torah uses the term ‘statute.’ I have decreed it; You have no right to question it.” The Mitzrachi, Rashi’s commentary, explains that it is impossible for Hashem to have given a mitzva without reason. Rabbi Yosi bar Chanina (Bamidbar Raba 19: 3-4) says: Hashem revealed to Moshe Rabbenu all the mitzvos and their reasons, but the mitzva of the Red Heifer remains a statute because although the reason exists, it was not taught.
The Gemara (Yoma 14a; Niddah 9a) explains the pasuk: “I said I became wise, but it eludes me” (Koheles 7:23) in light of the above: Shlomo Hamelech, in his great wisdom, tried to understand the meaning of this mitzva, but it remained incomprehensible to him.
The Ramban (Bamidbar 19:2) explains that two mitzvos serve as fodder for the Satan and the nations of the world’s taunts, as mentioned in Rashi: the mitzva of the Red Heifer and the mitzva of the scapegoat sent off to the wilderness on Yom Kippur. These two sacrifices take place outside the Mikdash, and the nations see them as sacrifices to the ghosts or other negative spiritual powers, because for them a sacrifice to a Holy G-d intended to remove impurity is unfathomable. The same goes for the impurity of death – since death occurs as a result of Adam HaRishon’s sin, the righteous ought to not become impure. However, this is the nature of the statute – all death incurs impurity, regardless of the deceased’s personality.
The Seforno (Bamidbar 19:2) explains that the peculiarity of this statute is its contradictory nature — it purifies an impure person, and renders a pure person — impure.
Despite its status as a statute, Rashi mentions an explanation for the mitzva. On the psukim starting with Bamidbar 19:22 he quotes the homiletical explanation from Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan’s commentary, who views the mitzva of the Red Heifer as atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf. Rabbi Yosef Chaim Zonenfeld (Toras Chaim 105) questions this reason – the mitzva of the Red Heifer was presented to the nation in Mara, before we received the Torah and sinned.
The Beis Halevi (Shemos 31:13) explains the connection between the Golden Calf and the mitzva of the Red Heifer: the sin of the Golden Calf was rooted in the Jewish people’s desire to act on the spiritual realm according to their understanding. Therefore, they were given the mitzva of the Red Heifer, a mitzva whose meaning is incomprehensible, to atone for their previous actions.
In this week’s article we will take a closer look at the natural desire to understand why we do what we do, and how much weight those explanations carry in terms of halacha.
Mitzvos With Reasons and Mitzvos Without
The Gemara (Yoma 67b) explains the pasuk (Vayikra 18:4): “You shall do My ordinances, and you shall keep My statutes to follow them, I am the Lord your G-d”: ‘My ordinances’ are matters that even had they not been written would have been logical to be written. ‘And you shall keep my statutes’ is a reference to matters that Satan and the nations of the world challenge because the reason for these mitzvot are not known. And lest you say these have no reason and are meaningless acts, therefore the verse states: “I am the Lord” to indicate: ‘I am the Lord, I decreed these statutes and you have no right to doubt them’.”
Many mitzvos make no sense to humans. Nevertheless, we are obligated to continue performing them faithfully, knowing that the meaning does exist although it is unknown to us. G-d knows it, and that should be enough of a reason.
Mitzva or Prohibition
The Rambam writes (Me’ilah 8:8): “It is appropriate that one meditate, according to his intellectual capacity, regarding the laws of the Torah to understand their deeper meaning. Those laws for which he finds no reason and knows no purpose should nevertheless not be treated lightly.” And indeed, in his work More Nevuchim (The Guide for the Perplexed) he provides extensive explanations for many mitzvos. He goes even further, writing that it is important to understand the mitzvos and that every mitzva has a purpose, but one should not ask why specific details are connected to a specific mitzva.
On the other hand, the Rashba writes (Volume IV, chapter 253) that the explanations mentioned in the Ramabam are highly questionable and should not be accepted, and with all due honor to the Rambam, the rest of the Torah sages throughout the generations did not see fit to seek the reasons behind the mitzvos.
The Shoel U’Meishiv (fifth edition, chapter 79) writes that we are not permitted to even attempt, with our limited faculties, to comprehend and encapsulate the true meaning of the Divine law, and even the Rambam did not write those explanations in his main work, only in his More Nevuchim. This indicates that the reasons mentioned there are not the main ones, and the explanations are intended only to make the mitzvos more digestible.
The prohibition of shaving off the corners of the head above the middle of one’s ears, for example, is explained by the Rambam in the Yad Hachazaka (his main halachic work) (Avoda Zara chapter 12:1) as in order to prevent Jewish people from looking like pagan priests. The Tur (Yore Deah, 181) argues with this explanation, claiming that we need not concern ourselves with the meaning of the mitzvos. The Beis Yosef writes that while the Tur is correct in his general approach, where the explanation is mentioned in the Torah or easily inferred through context, it should, indeed, be mentioned. With regard to the halacha of cutting one’s hair, the Rambam learns the reasoning from the context – it appears between many other halachos intended to distance Jewish people from idolatry. Hence, the mitzva of proper haircutting is part and parcel of this general prohibition.
The author of Sefer Hachinuch (penned during the Rashba’s lifetime), where every mitzva’s reason is detailed, explains (mitzva 598) that the purpose of his sefer is to encourage the younger generation to go and ask their teachers for additional details on the mitzvos. He explains (mitzva 159) that Hashem kept the reasons for the mitzvos hidden, but the sages explained them in the Midrash and their other writings. Although the mitzvos’ true inner meaning is unlimited and incomprehensible, it is incumbent upon us to try and peek through the cracks, and rejoice in the limited understanding we are able to glean from it.
The Sefer Hachinuch, after justifying that his explanations are only directed towards the younger generation and that it is improper to provide reasoning for a mitzva described by Chazal as unfathomable, explains that the purifying waters with the ashes of the Red Heifer work like medicinal potions that cure one and harm another.
The Beis Halevi differentiates between practical mitzva performance and intellectual Torah study. On the pasuk “Walk in my ways and be perfect (tamim)” (Bereshis 17:1) he explains that being perfect (tamim) in G-d’s eyes is performing G-d’s mitzvos without seeking out the reasons behind them. Understanding the mitzvos, though, falls under the general mitzva of Torah study. In Torah study we are obligated to stretch ourselves and reach our deepest comprehension capacities.
Reasons can also serve as a practical tool for memory. The Chida writes (Midbar Kdeimos Maarechet 9:5) that one who wishes to remember halachos should find reasons for them, as reasons can be a very powerful memorization tool.
Problematic Revelation of Reasons
The Gemara in Sanhedrin explains why the Torah did not present most of the mitzvos’ reasons: “Rabbi Yitzcḥak says: For what reason were the rationales of Torah commandments not revealed? It was because the rationales of two verses were revealed, and as a result the greatest in the world, King Shlomo, failed in those matters. It is written with regard to a king: “He shall not take many wives for himself, that his heart should not turn away” (Devarim 17:17). Shlomo said: I will take many, but I will not turn away, as he thought that it is permitted to have many wives if one is otherwise meticulous not to stray. And later, it is written: “For it came to pass, when Shlomo was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods” (Melachim I 11:4). And it is also written: “He shall not accumulate many horses for himself nor return the people to Egypt for the sake of accumulating horses” (Devarim 17:16), and Shlomo said: I will accumulate many, but I will not return. And it is written: “And a chariot came up and went out of Egypt for six hundred shekels of silver” (Melachim I 10:29), teaching that not only did Shlomo violate the Torah, but he also failed in applying the rationale given for its commandments. This demonstrates the wisdom in the Torah’s usual silence as to the rationale for its mitzvos — so individuals will not mistakenly rely on their own wisdom to reason that the mitzvot are inapplicable in some circumstances.
Similarly, the Mishna (Brachos 33b) writes: “One who recites in his supplication: Just as Your mercy is extended to a bird’s nest, as You have commanded us to send away the mother before taking her chicks or eggs (Devarim 22:6–7), so too extend Your mercy to us… we silence him.” The Gemara explains: “This is because he transforms the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be He, into expressions of mercy, when they really are nothing but decrees of the King that must be fulfilled without inquiring into the reasons behind them.”
The Tiferes Yisroel writes (Yachin Yodayim 4:46) that the reason behind the mitzvos should not be revealed to the ignoramus, heretic or non-Jew because if he finds a circumstance where the reason is inapplicable or any question regarding to it, he will disparage the mitzva. Following this rationale, the Gemara cites: “When the Sages decreed a decree in the West, Eretz Yisrael, they would not reveal the reason behind it a year passed, lest there be a person who does not agree with it and will come to treat it with contempt.”
The Malbim (Bereshis 3:3-4) explains that the first sin in world history occurred when Chava didn’t turn down the Serpent’s offer with the downright simplicity of G-d’s prohibition to eat from the Tree of Wisdom. Instead, she provided explanation, which turn out to be Adam’s added precaution, not a direct prohibition. This allowed the Serpent room to prove her wrong when she didn’t die from simply touching the Tree. Once she saw the reason was invalid, she went ahead and ate from it. The Malbim adds that this is the Yetzer Hara’s time-honed tactic – he disproves the reasoning and brings one to sin. For example, one who ponders the reason for refraining from eating non-kosher animals and learns that eating them is harmful for his body – should he later read a study that proves otherwise, he may stop keeping the mitzva. However, one who performs the mitzva because it is the Creator’s Will, will continue keeping it despite all studies.
The Malbim explains the pasuk “The best of reason and knowledge, teach me for I believe in Your commandments” (Tehilim 119:66) along the same lines – learning the reasons behind the mitzvos is good only if one believes and fulfills the mitzvos regardless — even when the reason seems irrelevant. Only because King David believed in the mitzvos was he able to thank G-d for having given him the insight to understand their reasons.
Appropriate and Inappropriate Reasoning
The Akeidas Yitzchak (Bamidbar 79 – Chukas) explains that every mitzva has two reasons – the first explaining how it ensures pleasure in This World, and the second – the future pleasure in the Next World. According to this approach, knowing how the Torah commandments bring us to the ultimate pleasure in This World assists us in our mitzva performance – we all know what our goals are for in This World, and understanding how the mitzvos bring us there makes them only more meaningful. This approach is supported by the pasuk in Mishlei (4:26): “Survey the course you take, And all your ways will prosper.”
However, with regard to eternal life in the Next World, whereas we have no comprehension of that dimension of life, we cannot fathom the reasons behind the mitzvos and how they will lead us to that everlasting pleasure. With regard to the eternal life the pasuk “And whereof no one had ever heard, had ever perceived by ear, no eye had ever seen a god besides You perform for him who hoped for him” (Yeshauahu 64:3) is relevant. Seeking to understand this reason for mitzvos is improper.
Before the Spanish Expulsion in 1492, a radical philosophical approach spread throughout Jewish communities in Spain and Portugal. This philosophy saw fulfilling the end-purpose of the mitzvos as primary and performing the practical mitzva. Following this approach, the mitzva of tefillin — which has the purpose of subjugating oneself to Hashem — had people performing it in their minds, but not in practice. They claimed it followed the Gemara (Succah 28a): “The Sages said about Rabban Yocḥanan ben Zakkai that he did not neglect Bible; Mishna; Gemara; halachos and aggados; minutiae of the Torah and minutiae of the scribes; the hermeneutical principles of the Torah with regard to a fortiori inferences and verbal analogies etc.”
The Rashba criticized this approach venomously (Teshuvos 366), comparing this philosophy to the doctor and pharmacist. Both know the formula for preparing potions, and that every deviance from the exact formula can cause death. Both prepare the potion with equal care, but while the doctor understands how the various components in the potion work together to heal, the pharmacist only understands the desired end result. While Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai understood the mitzvos’ inner mechanism and how they influence the world, the following generations lost this understanding and all they knew was how to achieve the desired end-results – i.e. how to perform the mitzvos in the most effective manner.
Rabbi Avraham Seba, one of the Jewish leaders of the Spanish-Portuguese communities during that dark period in history condemns this philosophy in his sefer, Tzror Hamor (Nitzavim). He quotes the following psukim in his criticism: “And it will be, when he [such a person] hears the words of this oath, that he will bless himself in his heart, saying, “I will have peace, even if I follow my heart’s desires,” in order to add the [punishment for the] unintentional sins [of this man] to that of [his] intentional sins. The Lord will not be willing to forgive him; rather, then, the Lord’s fury and His zeal will fume against that man, and the entire curse written in this book will rest upon him, and the Lord will obliterate his name from beneath the heavens. … The hidden things belong to the Lord, our G-d, but only what is revealed applies to us and to our children forever: that we must fulfill all the words of this Torah” (Devarim 29:18-28). One who believes he understands the reasons behind the mitzvos and can act upon them is a min and epicorus because that which is hidden is Hashem’s alone, and we have no comprehension of the mitzvos and their meaning. We only have the ability to fulfill the mitzvos as they were presented to us.
The Ksav Vehakabala follows along these lines as well.
The Abarbanel (of the same time period) adds that one who thinks he can live a life devoid of the practical mitzvos (be a Jew at heart) and remain part of the Jewish nation and be saved from calamity will not be pardoned. He explains that the reasons for the mitzvos are the hidden aspects of the mitzvos (following the Rambam).
The reasons for the mitzvos can be divided into several categories:
Some are spelled out in the Torah. This could become a cause for disregard of the mitzva as it happened to Shlomo Hamelech. This teaches us that even if the reason for the mitzva is clearly spelled out, although the reason may no longer seem to apply, nevertheless, the commandment remains in effect.
Some reasons are taught by the early Sages in works that discuss the hidden aspects of the Torah. These sources include Ma’ase Merkava, Sefer HaZohar and Kisvei HaAri. Halacha does not change in light of those explanations. Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin explains in Nefesh Hachaim (Sha’ar 1: 22) that before the Torah was given, the Partriarchs, who knew the reasons for the mitzvos, knew how to act in accordance with the Torah secrets and effect blessing in the world. Once Moshe Rabbenu gave the Torah to the Jewish people, fulfilling the Torah commandments is always pertinent, independent of the hidden reasons.
Presenting scholarly explanations (that were not mentioned in the Torah or early sources) of the reasons behind the mitzvos of the Torah is debatable. The Rashba and others reject it is completely, while the Rambam and Sefer Hachinuch use it as a tool to make the mitzvos more palatable to the younger generation (this, perhaps, was also Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s rationale). The Igros Moshe writes (Kodshim and Taharos, volume 1, chapter 15) that reasons that only appear in the More Nevuchim or Sefer HaChinuch and not in the Gemara do not carry halachic weight because the authors themselves knew there were other reasons, both known and hidden. Their only reason for writing was to highlight proper conduct or drive a message home.